Cycling the Temples at Angkor
Visiting Angkor Wat has been an obsession of mine for as long as I remember… actually come to think of it, I probably became interested in Angkor when I first noticed this fascinating poster of an old temple being overgrown by a tree at my old friends’ house (Spadina).
I was mesmerized and I told myself that one day I would visit and explore this place. This past week, Kendall and I got a chance to do just that!
There are many ways of visiting this huge religious site. Some people spend a week taking in all the temples, others a day or two, it really just depends how high your interest level is and how much time you have. For us, we were very much excited to see it but based on past experiences with temples, we knew one day would be enough to see the main sites. We aren’t archaeologists or historians and we knew that after a couple of hours the temples would all start to look the same and temple fatigue would kick in. When we arrived in Siem Reap we found out that if you purchase your admission ticket to the temples after 5pm the previous day you are allowed to enter the temple complex to watch the sunset before really exploring the temples the following day. Yey two visits for the price of one!
On our second evening in Siem Reap we hired a tuk tuk (motorcycle taxi) for $5USD to take us to the temples for sunset. After stopping and getting our tickets we proceeded to get our first glimpse of the magnificent monuments. It was breathtaking seeing the three towers of Angkor Wat for the first time. Driving past the crowds and towards a more secluded spot to witness the sunset we were dropped off in front of the gate to one of the other major temple sites called Angkor Thom. From there, based on some vague directions from Mr. Why Not and some random internet blogger, we proceeded to go to the ‘best secluded sunset spot at Angkor’.
I guess I understand why it is considered a secluded or ‘secret’ sunset spot, because there is absolutely nothing worthwhile to see. We walked for 30 minutes west along the moat of Angkor Thom and came to nothing of interest. It was a total waste of time and we both felt so frustrated and as Kendall rightfully put it we felt ‘robbed of an experience’. Luckily it was only 530pm, so we decided to run back to our tuk tuk and hopefully try to salvage the evening by catching at least a small glimpse of any temple in the remaining hour or so of sunlight. Our driver took us back to the main entrance of Angkor Wat and we hurriedly jumped off and swiftly proceeded to head to the main temple. We quickly passed the throngs of tourists who were going the other way and finally came up to the front steps of temple. Something felt wrong though… there were hardly any people here … was it closed? Were we too late? We proceeded to walk through the front gate into the inner sanctum of the temple, no one stopped us, and then we realized that we pretty much had the entire temple to ourselves.
It was pretty awesome exploring the temple in total peace and quiet. I truly can’t imagine being there during the middle of the day when the tour busses arrive – it would ruin the experience for me. We got lucky and managed to spend a solid hour inside the temple. As Kendall mentioned in the previous post corruption runs rampant in Cambodia, and the temples of Angkor are not exempt. There were police guards set up by the stairs leading to the upper levels and for $5 we could have climbed up. There was obviously no official sign or anything and the $5 was open for negotiation. In any case, since it was getting dark fairly quickly we passed on the offer and slowly made our out of the temple and back to the tuk tuk. We managed to salvage the evening and explore the inside of the most famous temple without any crowds! It was a great success!
The very next morning we woke up at 530 am and decided to rent some bicycles ($1USD each) to explore the Angkor complex at our own pace. It was quite beautiful cycling the flat 8km out of Siem Reap to the temples. Because the sun was just coming up, the temperature was still quite cool and the roads were pretty empty. When we got nearer to the temples the sun was in such a perfect position that it seemed quite surreal. It was literally a scene from a movie or a painting. We stopped, took a bunch of photos and stared in awe at the bright red sun rising beyond Angkor Wat. What a sight! It was one of those moments that remind you why you travel. Being on the road for so long we have become a bit desensitized to experiences and sights that normally would have wooed us if we were just starting out our trip. But let me tell you, this was mind blowing!!!!!
It was hard to pull away from the magnificent scene and jump back onto the bike, but we had to stick to our game plan: to get to the temples before the crowds. Our next stop was the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom. This temple is famous for its giant sculptures of smiling faces. Once again we were one of the first ones there and had the temple all to ourselves! The early morning lighting was fantastic and it created a really special atmosphere. We spent about an hour exploring this temple. Our cue to move on was the sound of loud chatter nearing the front entrance of the temple. A tour bus just dropped off 40 or 50 Koreans. Time to go!
We proceeded to cycle another 6 km to the next must-see temple at Angkor, Ta Prohm aka the Tomb Raider Temple. This temple is quite different than any of the other temples at Angkor as it was partially left in its jungle state creating an interesting and incredible mix of jungle foliage and ancient ruins. Here you see trees engulfing the ruins and exhibiting the power of the jungle and nature itself. This was quite an incredible sight. You really feel like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft while traversing around the quite open and accessible site. There are only a few places that are off limits and it seems like you could climb all over the place! I did manage to find the Spadina Tree; it is much bigger and more incredible in person J
We spent quite some time at Ta Prohm and really did not want to leave. However the sun started to really heat up and the tour busses started to arrive so we knew we had to get moving. A 15km trip back to town awaited us and we did not want to do it in the 45 degree midday heat! Cycling back was a bit tougher as not only did the heat increase but also the traffic. Luckily we made it back safe to Siem Reap and sound and we were super happy with our day!
We decided that for us visiting only the three main temples was quite sufficient. We did not try to pack in too much and this was perfect for us. Enjoying every quiet minute of each temple makes a bit better experience than visiting 10 temples being surrounded by hundreds of tourists. For us anyways.
There were tons of pictures to go through and it was really hard to scale back, so our apologies if there are too many.